Written by Adam Cathcart.

It doesn’t take much skill at reading tea-leaves in Chinese or English to recognize that Kim Jong-un’s letter of congratulations to Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, and Zhang Dejiang on the PRC’s National Day fell far short of what, from a Chinese perspective, it should have been. Kim’s three brief sentences were newsworthy because he was ostensibly bed-ridden, but also because they indicated a lack of respect for the Chinese Communist Party.

If the slight was intentional, it would reflect the recent context of relations between the respective Leninist Party-states, which have hardly been positive. On the heels of an open dispute over fishing rights involving North Korean hijacking and seizure of a Chinese ship (which, to my knowledge, has yet to be returned to Dalian), the DPRK news media began flaunting North Korea’s interest in maritime law. Surely such stories are intended and timed as much to aggravate Chinese colleagues as they are to brag about North Korea’s alleged adherence to international law. Thus, amid the grumbling and much hard work on the fisheries issue by the Chinese Embassy in Pyongyang, the North Korean suggestion at the UN that the Security Council needed reforming was not intended to get back in Beijing’s good graces.

But do such memes a proper overall bilateral controversy make? Not necessarily. The PRC Embassy in Pyongyang seems to finally be getting some satisfaction on issues surrounding Chinese Korean War tombs in North Korea. The Ambassador recently attended a trade fair and has been particularly active in meeting overseas Chinese in North Korea; he is anything but bunkered in. Bilateral trade is way up (67% in the past six months) between eastern Jilin province and the DPRK’s North Hamgyong province, as reported last month in the print edition of Yanbian Chenbao (Yanbian Morning Post). And a major bilateral trade festival is slated to go down October 16-20 in Dandong. If that last event is cancelled, then perhaps we have something really big to talk about.

However, some things never change. When North Korea starts to shift its scholarly and historical narratives of northern regimes, Beijing takes note. I will never forget sitting in the Chinese Foreign Ministry Archive and being gobsmacked by the level of detail with which that bureaucracy was analyzing one particular article in Pyongyang’s major historical journal. The article argued that Korea was not, in fact, subservient to the Yuan dynasty in the late 1200s and that Korea’s place in the Sinocentric tributary system was hardly eternal. In its writing, the MFA officials were in effect warning Chinese leaders that this scholarship could presage a change in North Korea’s foreign policy, resulting in more intransigence toward Beijing.

No one really needs reminding today of how potent the deep historical issues can be between both Koreans and China. Park Geun-hye’s careful trips to Xi’an and around China, and her deft dance around and into various intellectual and nationalistic minefields were remarkable for their efforts to reframe Chinese-South Korean historical ties. When these efforts are paired with a real impetus from Beijing down to the academies under its dominion to engage with South Korea in the realm of ‘soft power,’ one has to think that this is all starting to work, if gingerly.

Meanwhile, North Korea has thrown a metaphorical grenade in the middle of the floor by raising the Koguryo issue in a rather prominent light. On the eve of China’s National Day (1 October), the evening news in Pyongyang ran a story about an academic conference on the Koguryo theme. The KCNA explained part of the backdrop:

History: Monument to King Kwanggaetho of Koguryo
It has been 1 600 years since the erection of Monument to Kwanggaetho (391-412), the 24th king of Koguryo, a powerful state that existed in the East for a thousand years (B.C. 227-A.D. 668). The monument was built by King Jangsu, Kwanggaetho’s son, in 414 to hand down his feats to posterity. It is located in Kuknaesong (Jilin Province of China at present), which was the capital of Koguryo. […]

— Pyongyang, October 1 (KCNA)

Perhaps not a big deal? Consider the fact that this artifact is on Chinese territory presently, surrounded in glass, and, more importantly, that its related steele has recently been uncovered and is under heavy protection from any foreign documentation in the new Koguryo History Museum in Ji’an city, on the upper Yalu River.

The last foreign reporter to make a trek to see it was ‘detained by public security personnel, before being ordered to leave Jian and followed out of town.’ When I traveled to see this steele with two Sino-NK colleagues this past April, not only was it impossible to take photos of it, one had to leave all cameras and phones in another building entirely.

The PRC is fiercely protective of the Koguryo narrative on its own soil, such that the kingdom is not even mentioned in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture Museum (another new edifice) and major research clusters in Beijing and across the Northeast exist to propound the view that Koguryo was really just a nomadic Chinese minority group. The North Korean officials who approved the existence of this news item, on a key date on the Chinese calendar, could not be oblivious to this reality.

The academic conference on the subject of Koguryo, covered here in some detail by Rodong Sinmun (in Korean), made the theme all the more tangible. Remco Breuker, the principal investigator of a major newresearch grant on the politics of Koguryo and the role of Manchuria in Korean historical controversies, is now in possession of a number of slides from the conference presentations, and may be doing some more writing subsequently about how and why the DPRK is interpreting that part of its pre-history.

Historical politics don’t fully drive relationships in Northeast Asia, but they surely have a way of reflecting and highlighting contemporary divisions. The salient example here is how the North Korean media and museum sector, obviously working in coordination, have stepped up anti-Japanese education in places like Kaesong as the abduction report has waned from ‘pending’ to ‘perhaps not forthcoming at all.’ North Korea’s unilateral highlighting of the Koguryo issue thus serves a similar purpose: It indicates to Chinese interlocutors the intractability of North Korea’s stances on multiple issues, and the readiness, to use a Chinese metaphor for where things stand, to go ‘deeper into the ditch’ of Chinese-North Korean relations if need be.

Adam Cathcart is a Lecturer at the University of Leeds and a CPI Regular Contributor. He tweets @adamcathcart. Image credit: CC by Caitriana Nicholson/Flickr.