How do Chinese see North Korea?

Posted: December 19, 2011 in Politics
Tags: , , ,

Upon news of Kim Jong-Il’s death today, Chinese netizens on Weibo had reactions pretty similar to those from the West. There was a lot of mocking, some concern about what this will mean politically and a lot of celebratory remarks. Many have also started asking “who’s next?” amid the stream of high-profile 2011 deaths. There are notable differences though at opposite extremes.

One weibo user said, “Kim Jong-Il, an old friend of the Chinese people, has died.” Another lamented that yet another “Anti-Western hero” has fallen.

On the other side some are making sarcastic references to China’s government. A netizen named S_uper Dian tainment said, “Kim Jong Il done for? who’s next? Chavez, Ahmadinejad? [In accordance with relevant laws, regulations and policies, some names were not shown.]”

In the past I’ve often asked Chinese their views on North Korea out of curiosity. True to today’s form, opinions of China’s little comrade to the east are all over the place. Historical issues, stereotypes, modern propaganda and reality jockey for influence in shaping Chinese opinion of most foreign countries; and North Korea is certainly no exception.

In school, most students will learn about North Korea when they study the Korean War, or as it’s called in China: “The War to Resist American Aggression and Aid Korea.” The official account is that the “People’s Volunteer Army” was sent to defend China and aid the helpless Koreans. It ended with a glorious victory against the militarily superior American forces.

After that, it’s a bit awkward. The modern juxtaposition of North and South Korea makes this victory look a bit hollow, so the war is generally where the official education on North Korea ends. But the country also offers a nice contrast to China in some respects. Reform & Opening Up and Chinese leadership look especially impressive by comparison. So there’s mixed signals.

Just about everyone I’ve talked to in China realizes North Korea is very poor. But not many have said much about deplorable human rights or a Stalinist government. I showed a documentary on the country to a friend once who was pretty taken aback by it. These kinds of things don’t tend to get much coverage in China – no matter where they happen.

The most common reply I get though when I ask Chinese friends about North Korea is, “It’s like China was 30 years ago.” That seems fairly accurate, but sometimes it’s not necessarily meant as a negative statement. Chinese fed up with the pressures of capitalism and growing inequalities are increasingly looking back to the Mao-era nostalgically. This is especially true with those who weren’t yet old enough to appreciate the hardships of the time. In people’s tendency to romanticize the past, Mao’s time seems relatively simple and egalitarian.

North Korea offers a modern day incarnation of that period. The bulk of foreign tourists to North Korea are Chinese, largely for this reason. When I was in Pyongyang this past summer I chatted with a Chinese man in the karaoke room of our hotel who had his own export business. It was his third trip and you could tell by the way he talked he was loving every minute of it. With no phone or internet he enjoyed the chance to throw himself back into real socialism for a few days without the pesky distractions of materialist China.

But that’s a fairly extreme view. In my overall experience, most Chinese have some vague negative notions of North Korea, but have never really been provoked or cared to learn much more. All in all, probably not any more misinformed than most Americans – just maybe from a slightly different direction. And who’s to say who’s right? If there’s one thing I learned from going to North Korea, it’s how little anyone really knows about it – including those who have been there.

Here’s a few other posts from Weibo I found interesting. (I can’t speak to the authenticity of the quotes supposedly made by Kim) :

Obama is truly a great president. Few others have accomplished so much. In his term: Osama Bin Laden, Gaddafi, and now Kim Jong-Il.

The Chinese people’s old friend Kim said: “The nation’s greatness does not lie in its vast territory, or long history, while the leader guides the nation’s greatness.  Only when there is a great leader and great party leading the country will the nation be brilliant and let individual honor shine.” If other old friends hear this, they will clap until their hands go red!

When the Chinese people’s old friend Gaddafi was in a hopeless situation and his fears became reality, the few remaining old friends of the Chinese people, Kim Jong Il , Mugabe, Chavez, Castro, and Lukashin had an emergency telephone meeting and reached a consensus: They decided to cancel the “old friend of China”  title of honor. They agreed that the title is too damn dangerous.

In the Korean primary school textbook Grandfather Kim’s Work is Most Tense, Kim said to the pioneers, “Chinese people are still grateful. Now, the Korean people also assume the responsibility to defend the safety of Chinese people. We must defeat the U.S. imperialist running dogs in Taiwan to a complete return of the Chinese people in Taiwan. Do you have confidence?” The young pioneers all confidently replied, “We have the idea and have confidence!”

Chinese people’s dream: 1. School is free 2. You can get a job without guanxi (connections) 3. Doctors don’t sell drugs 4. Food is not poisonous 5. No lies in news reports 6. Professors are not idiots 7. Officials don’ t take bribes 8. Chengguan don’t beat people 9. People who take off pants can’t get popular 10. People who brag can’t get famous  11. Houses are not demolished by force 12. People are not afraid of power 13. The environment is not polluted 14. Officials don’t have privilege. If you agree, please tweet “Kim Jong Il died” “Anti-soccer corruption””anti-radiation clothes” 




  1. All depends if the third Kim is accepted as the new leader or if there is a power struggle. I have a Korean friend who visited North Korea and it gave her the willies. I hope the Koreans come out of this well.

    • sinostand says:

      I have another Chinese friend who went to N. Korea too and she got the serious willies, wanting to leave early. Should have mentioned that. Personally, I loved it.

  2. kingtubby1 says:

    I’m really conflicted here, since the Brilliant Leader enjoys listening to Eric Clapton.
    Not joking. An acquired taste which probably comes with a Swiss education.

    9. People who take off pants can’t get popular. lol

    Makes one wonder about the surly, very no happy atmospherics in China today.

    2012 promises to be a fun year for observers and the sino-chatterati.

  3. […] some more folksy reactions in China, there’s a random collection on […]

  4. […] a break from all the official-ese, Sinostand has a nice roundup of some Chinese netizen chatter on Weibo in response to Kim’s death (link via […]

  5. FOARP says:

    @Eric – Weren’t you at all troubled by the thought that foreign currency spent in N. Korea goes straight into the Kim’s terrorism slush-fund? This is one of the main things that keeps me from wanting to go there.

  6. kingtubby1 says:

    @FOARP You are going all hardcore after your holiday.

    More likely slush fund for the connected elite. My cut and paste education.

    The drug counterfeiting claims are non-controversial.
    Lot of it eminates from Section 39, the department tasked with acquiring foreign currency to fund the lifestyles of the 300 families and the rest of the elite. To this you can add counterfeit cigarettes, smack and methalamphetimine(sic) (whatever you call the stuff…..Yaba …. )
    South Fujian is the other major centre for counterfeit cigarette manufacture in Asia.
    North Korean chemists are very good at their job and in high demand.
    North Korean diplomats have a record of getting busted for illegal activities in foreign lands.
    North Korea has controlled the sale of speed- type drugs in Japan since the 1960s. This was facilitated by the Korean community living in Japan. The name of their organisation can be found on wiki etc, and it is a very interesting and sad story indeed.

    There was/is a lot of fraternal feeling between the two Korean communities, besides the drug finance stuff.
    Japanese colonialism had a profound effect on the idea of Korean identity
    Keep in mind that there were anti-Korean pogroms in Japan in the 1920s….a sad fact in Asian history, tied up with the idea of clean and unclean trades.
    Japan’s vicious occupation of the Korean Peninsula in the 192Os.

    I think it was around 2004 that Chine’s banking police caught North Korea flooding the northern provinces with perfect 100rmb notes. It was *very no appreciated* by Beijing, and they closed the borders until it stopped, which it did.
    Other than that, China has little influence on the North Korean elite and, to tell the truth, Koreans either side of the DMZ generally look down on Chinese ‘as unwashed and uncivilised’.
    People with smelly socks.

    • FOARP says:

      Yeah, quite a lot of the people seen “crying” in a most comically fake fashion in recent footage from North Korea appear unusually well-heeled for North Koreans. Sure, that’s where some/most/nearly all of the foreign income of North Korea is going.

      But basically, it still feels like playing Sun City to me. Yeah, I know, all of us who have lived and paid taxes in China have done something to help out the government, and some of the money paid in tax is spent on repression, but the Chinese government is not nearly so terrible as the DPRK’s. Some will spout about how some tax money paid in the UK also goes towards objectionable policies, but there is an even greater distance between the UK and the PRC than there is between the PRC and the DPRK.

  7. justrecently says:

    I think your concerns are justified, Foarp – and it is important to know ones personal red lines which one shouldn’t cross. But helping out the Chinese government, and be it only by paying taxes there (just as all of us do or did), weighs much more heavily in my view than a trip to North Korea. The only difference is that some of North Korea’s strikes could affect us, while we are less likely to end up in a Chinese prison, than, say, Chen Wei.

    I’ve been to Syria before, and not I can’t tell if a certain share of my bucks spent at the photographic laboratory, the bakery, for accommodation or transport etc. went to Hezb’allah, or if they didn’t. At a certain point, one needs to stop worrying. And at another point, one needs to start worrying.

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