On a recent trip to North Korea, my North Korean minder, a lively woman in her late 20s who had been educated in Beijing, shared with me her dreams for a better life. “I want to be a businesswoman,” she said to me in fluent Chinese. “My time in China had a huge influence on me. Making money is good.” Wow, I thought. Here I am, on my first trip to North Korea, and already I’m witnessing capitalist cells infecting the body politic of the Hermit Kingdom. I congratulated myself on my reportorial chops.
Then, the next night, I eavesdropped as the same woman sidled up to the rest of my group — Chinese friends from Beijing — and said the exact same thing, in the exact same conspiratorial tone.
My friends’ reaction was less ebullient than mine. “Ha,” one said to me when I remarked about how she seemed to be spouting blasphemy in a workers’ paradise. “Don’t start thinking you’re getting a scoop. Whatever they say has been approved beforehand. They’re robots.”
In the end, our three-day trip to North Korea organized by a Chinese tour company taught me more about how Chinese view North Korea than about the North itself. Bowing at twin statues of Kim Il Sung and his son Kim Jong Il, one of my companions smirked: “It’s like the Cultural Revolution.” “Only worse,” someone else piped in. At a museum celebrating the rule of North Korea’s current leader, Kim Jong Un, another remarked, “He’s the only fat person in North Korea.” My friends referred to Kim as Jin Sanpang, or No. 3 Fatty Kim — a Chinese nickname that has been banned from China’s Internet at the behest of the North Korean government.
I reflected on the views of my companions recently as the situation on the Korean peninsula has become more dire. Kim Jong Un has redoubled the efforts, begun by his grandfather, to turn his nation into a nuclear power. He has conducted more missile tests than his grandfather and father combined. He appears to have a serviceable intercontinental ballistic missile. He’ll soon be able to marry it with a miniaturized nuclear warhead. On Tuesday, after North Korea shot a missile through Japan’s airspace, China’s Foreign Ministry warned that the region was “now at a tipping point, approaching a crisis.”
As this approaching crisis unspools, it is China that will be saddled with this evil ally that more and more Chinese detest but that their government can’t seem to get rid of. While my friends look down on North Korea, viewing it as a kind of Communist Disneyland to be mocked but not feared, China’s government worries that its collapse would spell not just a refugee crisis but, with the possible unification of the Korean peninsula under a pro-American South, a perilous security situation for the Communist government in Beijing. As such, the gap between what average Chinese think of the North and the government’s views is widening.
Near the end of our North Korean holiday, we were shuttled to the USS Pueblo, a naval spy vessel that was captured by North Korean forces in 1968. There another fellow traveler mocked North Korea’s obsession with the past. “They’re still fighting the Korean War,” she remarked. “That’s because they have no future,” another answered. At an exhibit nearby, we were greeted by the North Korean claim that South Korea and the United States started the Korean War. I remarked that Chinese textbooks also echo that falsehood. “We don’t believe those textbooks either,” another friend said.
When we were allowed on what was billed as a “free walk” through downtown Pyongyang, escorted by minders in front and behind, the whole group scoffed at the complete fakeness of the scene. All of us were struck by the dead look in the eyes of everyone we passed. “It’s like they’ve taken sedatives,” one friend remarked. The only seemingly genuine interaction we had during several days occurred during a ride on the subway when an elderly veteran with more medals on his chest than teeth in his mouth boarded our car and smiled broadly when one of us gave him a seat. But who knows, we were left to wonder, even that might have been staged.
Watching China grapple with this widening problem, I think back to my companions. Until now, China has taken a passive approach to the crisis. It argues that the problem is North Korea and America’s to solve. But among my Chinese friends and even among some officials, I get a sense of an emerging realization. North Korea is China’s problem, too. Communist Party insiders no longer view it as a convenient way to sap U.S. strength. As one of my companions observed, “No. 3 Fatty Kim’s missiles can be pointed in any direction. Even at us.”