The first clue as to the erudite nature of Professor Adam Cathcart‘s blog musings on matters of the Far East is the title of his WordPress page: the “Sinologistical Violoncellist.” The youthful looking master cellist is indeed a man who can cut through the discordant cacophany of Chinese-North Korean relations analysis with short pieces of sweet, sweet music.
Then again, one should expect nothing less from an Assistant Professor of History at Tacoma’s Pacific Lutheran University who once lived for three years with Tsewang Namgual Shelling, a translator and participant in the 1950’s negotiations with the Chinese Communist Party in Tibet, and is scheduled to perform a series of Soviet Realist sonatas later this month at the Sichuan Conservatory of Music with his long-time collaborator, pianist Andreas Boelcke. Cathcart is currently on site in China as the director of his school’s gateway program at Sichuan University in Chengdu, which affords him the always relished opportunity to visit the superpower’s border with the land of the Kim’s.
“The North Korean border region is probably the most interesting place in the entire world,” affirms Cathcart via interview with LiberateLaura. “As a historian, the trips net me fascinating materials: I manage to find everything fromCultural Revolution court documents about alleged Kim Il Sung worship at Yanbian University to North Korean textbooks from the 1950’s.”
“I’ve been going to the border region intermittently and annually for just shy of a decade now; my current rhythm gets me there two or three times a year,” he adds. “I recall when one North Korean kid, who was probably eight-years-old, with cigarette burns all over his arms, was clinging to my ankles in search of a few yuan. This Manchu grandma shooed him away and explained she didn’t have much sympathy for refugees, having been one herself during the Chinese civil war.”
“Those experiences caused me to think more about China’s relationship with North Korea, and I suppose I have been thinking and learning about it ever since.”
Over the course of this apprenticeship, Cathcart has heard many an analogy for the Hermit Kingdom. But since he has yet to come across one that does justice to the remotest corner of his scholarly focus, he is left with no choice but to paraphrase the late Winston Churchill.
“North Korea is a riddle wrapped in an enigma, bored into a vertiginous mountain,” he jokes, tapping into a sense of professorial humor that often enlivens his blog posts. “It is the country that refuses to become a collection of marginal provinces; it is pencil markings on the back of twin portraits; it is revolutionary song melodies dying for new words. It is the Friendster of international socialism, everyone else having moved on.”
And as Friendster is to social media, so is the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) to the modern art of political PR. The service’s recent tacit announcement of Kim Jong-un‘s promotion to four-star general was par for dad’s hole-in-one course, reflecting none of the pomp and circumstance of a world leader’s first official media mention.
Still, even though the world of haltingly translated KCNA news releases is a strange one, Cathcart says it is too often simplistically pigeonholed. There is a method to the propaganda arm’s madness, one that South Korea continues to block from public consumption.
“KCNA is a clinically bizarre world, but one that has a great deal of internal consistency all the same,” he argues. “Some people find it ironic that the KCNA website is hosted in Japan, but then again, a great deal of North Korea’s financial, moral and technological support comes from the pro-DPRK ethnic Koreans in that country.”
Looking ahead, Cathcart suggests that the threshhold upon which North Korea currently finds itself perched is similar to China circa 1976, when the Maoist personality cult hung in the balance.
“To the marginal credit of North Korea, the propaganda seems to imply that a new generation of Kim‘s will be open to enhanced technological development and foreign investment, as in Chinese,” he observes. “No one in the West really gave much credence or analysis to Kim Jong-il’s recent China trip as a means of draping Kim Jong-un in the flag of bloody anti-Japanese revolution, but that’s partially what it accomplished.”
“When China allows a ton of Kim Jong-un rumors from South Korea into the Chinese Communist Party press, apart from the [sushi chef recounted] allegation that he throws cats, it means they aren’t crazy about the Kim family cult,” says Cathcart. “The domestic media climate in China as regards North Korea is a point of fascination for me and the situation can be summed up very easily: in China, most people don’t give a damn about North Korea, but for anyone who wants to know, there is plenty of coverage.”
Coverage that often has little to discern between the lines. Although Cathcart says the Chinese powers that be were horrified at the way Kim Jong-il snubbed former U.S. President Jimmy Carter when the latter flew to Pyongyang to rescue American detainee Aijalon Mahli Gomes, no hint of this feeling of a fiasco made it into the tightly governed state media.