July 12, 2017 12:51 pm JST

Remodeling of memorials signals shift in China's stance on North Korea

Xi administration rumored to be cooling toward Pyongyang

OKI NAGAI, Nikkei staff writer

A Chinese man looks across the Yalu river from the border city of Dandong, Liaoning province, towards the city of Sinuiju, North Korea. © Getty Images

BEIJING -- Subtle signs of change in China's stance toward North Korea are emerging in areas along China's border with its long time ally.

China supported North Korea during the Korean War by sending a volunteer army to help its ally fight the advancing U.S. forces that had come to the rescue of South Korea.

China later built facilities along the border with North Korea to commemorate the battle, which was fought under the slogan "kang mei yuan chao" (resist U.S. aggression and aid North Korea).

Now these facilities are undergoing significant changes. Some observers see this as a sign that the administration of Chinese President Xi Jinping is recalibrating its policy toward the defiant regime in Pyongyang.

One of the facilities is located in Yanji, the capital of the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in northeastern Jilin Province. With ethnic Koreans making up more than half of the region's population, most signboards in Yanji are written in both Chinese characters and the Hangul alphabet.

Early this year, a memorial hall named the Yanbian cemetery of revolutionary martyrs, in central Yanji, received an order from a senior member of the local Communist Party committee to remove the phrase "kang mei yuan chao" from the title of an exhibition there.

It was built to honor those who died in the war of resistance against Japan and the civil war between the Kuomintang government of the Republic of China and the Communist Party as "revolutionary martyrs." It is designated by the party as a "model base for patriotic education."

The letters on the nameplate within the compound were written by Zhang Dejiang, a third-rank member of the elite Politburo Standing Committee.

The exhibition is the eighth of the nine sections of the facility, which concerns the Korean War.

The full title of the No. 8 exhibition was "zhong zhi cheng cheng, kang mei yuan chao," whose first part is a well-known idiom meaning "Unity of will is an impregnable stronghold."

The latter "resist U.S. aggression and aid Korea" part has been replaced by another idiom, "gu ruo jin tang," meaning "secure as a city protected by a wall of metal and a moat of boiling water," resulting in "zhong zhi cheng cheng, gu ruo jin tang," which roughly means, "People united become a well-fortified stronghold that is invulnerable to attack."

When I asked an official at the facility the reason for the change, the person said people have different views and opinions about "resist U.S. aggression and aid Korea." "So we have changed it to a phrase nobody would criticize," he said.

But changing the title of an exhibition at an important center for history education is never done casually in China. So I asked the official who actually gave the order. The official gave me a look as if to say, "What a stupid question," and told me it had been an instruction from "the higher-ups."

Later, I told this episode to a Chinese expert in the history between China and North Korea. The historian showed a strong interest in what I told him, saying, "I didn't know about that. I'll look into the facts."

The expert also advised me to visit "kang mei yuan chao" memorial halls in Shenyang and Dandong, both in northeastern Liaoning Province, if I was interested in the history of that slogan.

Unlike the facility in Yanji, which introduces visitors to the Korean War as part of the history of China's revolution, spanning the period from the war of resistance against Japan to the founding of Communist China. The two memorial halls in Liaoning Province focus on the history of the slogan "kang mei yuan chao," according to the historian.

Slogan exhibitions

I first traveled to the facility in Shenyang, which the scholar said is one of the largest exhibitions concerning the slogan in China.

Shenyang is the central city in Northeast China. During the Korean War, North Korea founder Kim Il Sung attended military meetings in the city.

The cemetery of "kang mei yuan chao" martyrs, is built in a huge, beautifully developed compound that looks like a park. The cemetery features, among other things, round tombs called "digong" (underground palaces as part of the Imperial tomb) and tombstones with the names of war dead inscribed on them.

Among the names is Mao Anying, the eldest son of Mao Zedong, who died in the Korean War. A group of elderly people visiting the cemetery were looking for the names of their family members.

A sign saying Kang Mei Yuan Chao Martyrs Memorial Hall pointed me to a large, distorted hexagonal building.

But the front entrance was closed, and the metal parts of the outside walls were fully covered with rust.

As I tried to go around to the other side of the building, I was stopped by a security guard, who asked, "Where are you going?"

I said I was looking for the entrance, and the guard made a surprising reply.

"The closed gate is the front entrance," he said, adding, "This place has been closed for remodeling for over a year."

I peered through the windows, and saw no exhibits, but found exposed air ducts on the walls as well as rubble and dirt scattered on the floor.

There were no signs of any remodeling work going on. When I asked the guard when the facility would be reopened, he answered curtly, "I don't know. That's up to leaders to decide."

When I asked another person working in the facility what was the purpose of remodeling, he just said, "It is an instruction from above."

When I pointed out that there were no signs of remodeling work, the official gave me an offhand answer, saying, "They are working in the back."

I found no vehicles or equipment that might be used for such work around the building.

My visit to the "kang mei yuan chao" memorial hall in Dandong, the largest city on the Chinese border with North Korea, proved even more disappointing.

When I asked a taxi driver to take me to the memorial hall, the driver said to me, "It's closed for remodeling; you still want to go?"

A red signboard in front of the entrance said, "Closed on Dec. 29, 2014, for remodeling and expansion work. The reopening date will be announced later."

After two and a half years of remodeling, I wondered, when would it reopen?

Locals offered a variety of answers. "They said the work would be finished this spring, but it now seems it will be completed next year," one said. Another claimed, "The hall will be reopened at the end of this year." Yet another predicted: "You will be able to see [the exhibits] if you come in autumn." Apparently, nobody really knew when the facility would reopen.

Remodeling relations

What is clear is this: In the four years since Xi Jinping became president in 2013, all these facilities to commemorate China's "resist U.S. aggression and aid Korea" campaign have begun to be remodeled.

This has coincided with a period in which China's relationship with North Korea has been deteriorating steadily.

In February 2013, one month before Xi assumed the top leadership post, North Korea carried out its third nuclear test. In December 2013, Jang Song Thaek, the once-powerful uncle of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, was executed after being purged for acts of treachery. Jang served as a mediator between Pyongyang and Beijing and was a leading champion of the reform and opening-up of the North Korean economy, which China has been calling for.

There were some tentative moves on both sides to repair bilateral ties in 2015. But Pyongyang's obsession with its program to develop nuclear arms hindered the fence-mending efforts.

In January 2016, North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test, delivering an additional blow to its already strained relations with China. There have since been few signs of improvement.

Chinese scholars specializing in the Korean Peninsula talk about a clear change in Beijing's stance toward Pyongyang. It was once difficult to criticize North Korea in public, they point out, but now everybody openly bad-mouths the country.

China describes its relationship with North Korea as a "blood alliance" to justify the sacrifices it made for the country during the Korean War. The term was also used during the Cold War era to indicate their unity in confronting the West.

Under the surface of solid unity, however, the bilateral relationship has been plagued by mutual distrust. During the Korean War, for instance, the two countries got locked in a struggle for control and asked the Soviet Union to mediate between them.

Last year, China's top leaders received a report urging them to face up to the troubled history between the two countries, according to party insiders. Some diplomats say Beijing has started making adjustments to its policy toward Pyongyang after years of trying to maintain the status quo.

Serious upheavals in North Korea could create massive waves of refugees flowing into China. North Korea also plays an important role as a buffer between China and U.S. forces stationed in South Korea.

These realities make it hard for China to make radical changes in its policy toward North Korea.

The Communist Party of China would become bitterly divided if it started seriously considering a major change in its policy toward the longtime ally.

Still, many pundits say there is the possibility of such a change in Beijing after Xi further solidifies his power base at the party congress this autumn.

If so, the "remodeling" of the important facilities for history education may be a step in laying the groundwork for the policy shift.

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