27.04.2016 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

How to Drive a Wedge Between China and North Korea

62-610x405With China joining the anti-North Korean sanctions and the alienation in relations between the two countries, the number of news articles aimed at aggravating this discord has increased yet again.

The most recent news piece of this kind is a South Korean media report that Beijing suspects Pyongyang of issuing counterfeit yuan which have recently been uncovered in China. On Wednesday, the Chinese company, Phoenix New Media, announced this possibility, referring to the views of the experts on the Korean Peninsula and political observers. A similar statement was also made by the newspaper “Huanqiu Shibao” on their website on March 28. It stated that fake RMB bank notes in circulation in the Chinese city of Dalian, Liaoning Province could only have been printed in NK. Phoenix New Media also reported that NK has world-class technology for the production of counterfeit notes and is engaged in the mass production of counterfeit dollars, yen and yuan.

The news, of course, sounds intriguing, but if you try to double-check the facts, it appears that in the official Chinese media, the North Korean origin of the counterfeit money was not proven, but only suggested. Furthermore, the Chinese media company named above is, in fact, Hong Kong-based and privately owned. Yes, it is quite a serious holding company, which owns several cable TV channels, but we are presented with the same type of information distortion as in the stories about Jang Sung-taek allegedly eaten by dogs. It began when a blogger’s post was reprinted by a rather tabloid Hong Kong newspaper, then, spread by propagandists, it found its way into Chinese and was then published in the official Chinese media. It is the same now.

No, tension between North Korea and China is not going away. Both sides have long had no illusions with respect to each other’s policy, and there is a lot to be unhappy about, especially during the vote in the UN Security Council on sanctions against North Korea. This discontent can be heard in official statements of the North Korean press, as the article in “Rodong Sinmun” issued on April 2, 2016 exemplified. The editorial, written on behalf of the Korea Institute of International Political Problems, contained harsh criticism “of a major power that succumbed to the demands and pressures of the United States” by acceding to the anti-North Korean sanctions. The note pointed out that by doing so the country betrayed their “dear friendship” with North Korea.

North Korea’s official attitude has always been like this in situations where there is no overt confrontation. At one time, it was the Russian Federation that was “one such country”, whose policy was criticized in a similar manner during Yeltsin’s time. It was clear to everyone though no explicit details were provided.

However, this rift in the relationship between the two countries is being actively encouraged from the outside. Moreover, it has been conducted both diligently and for a long time. Almost every year or so there is one story about Pyongyang’s anti-Chinese policy, the persecution of Chinese people or Chinese culture. So, back in April 2012, before North Korea’s third missile launch, the Japanese magazine Shukan bunsyun in an attempt to provoke a hard-line response from Beijing, reported that it had allegedly received the written political will of Kim Jong Il, created in the best traditions of the “will of Peter the Great”, from one of the North Korean defectors. In it, Kim allegedly pointed out that one should be cautious with China. It can turn from the “closest partner” into a country “that one will have to keep a close eye on”. “Historically, China has been a source of problems for Korea. Remember this and exercise caution. Do not let the Chinese exploit us.

And recently another Japanese media company claimed to have received a closed-access written statement of the Workers’ Party of Korea Central Committee dated March 10, 2016, entitled: “Party members and workers! Let’s crush into pieces with the force of a nuclear storm all machinations to pressure us by China who has betrayed socialism!”. China’s policy is characterized there as “hostile” and as “an attempt to preserve hegemony”, and a call was voiced “to pursue a policy on par with China and not to allow it to look down at us”.

I must say that writing “political wills” post factum is not actually very difficult; it is also rather easy to imitate the North Korean style. In this context, the above “closed letter” could be either true or false, since you can single out a fake based on the intricacies of the formatting of internal documents that are clear from the inside, but not very well known outside.

However, there are many strange features that suggest that it is fake. There is no Juche date in the text. The image available on the internet shows the clipped document so that there is no header or the incoming number. The address “Party members and workers” is not typical either. It seems strange to see a hand-written text: you can, of course, assume that it is a telephonogramme, but actually closed letters are not normally circulated in this way.

It also includes factoids like a ban on wearing Chinese clothes and accessories in the DPRK, which was broadcast on January 11 on the US radio station “Free Asia” . And the cases of stovepiping about the persecution of ethnic Chinese in North Korea, forced abortions of Korean women to prevent them giving birth to mixed children, or about the mass detentions of Chinese citizens on suspicion of “espionage.” The latest gossip of December 17, 2015 had to be refuted at the Embassy level.

Japanese media spread around reports on “a total ban on the entry of vessels from the DPRK to Chinese ports” that also had to be refuted in a special statement. “I do not know where this information came from. I hope that the relevant media will be guided by a responsible attitude in covering the events, be reasonable or, moreover, never fabricate news,” said Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying on March 23, 2016.

Therefore, while reading about the scandals between China and North Korea, we must remember that even though there are difficulties, not every sensational headline is true. It is easier to make a mountain out of a molehill than to make one from nothing, and that is what the enemies of North Korea take advantage of.

Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D., Senior Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.