What’s the link between Kim Jong Il, a Nanjing orphan, and Korea’s recent nuclear test?
The answer to that conundrum lies buried deep within Kim Jong Il’s Godson Yang Bin: From Orphan to Sinuiju SAR Chief, a Chinese book just published in English by Fortune Gate (HK) Ltd.
If you’ve never heard of the “Yang Bin Affair” (杨斌事件) or the Sinuiju SAR (新义州特区), that’s not surprising. The Chinese government might even to be pleased to learn that, since it would confirm that its arrest and imprisonment of Yang Bin—Number 2 on Forbes 2001 list of the richest Chinese—has been quite effective in keeping the Sinuiju SAR off the world map.
To set the scene, let’s quote from the book’s back cover:
This is. . .the biography of Yang Bin, who rose from humble beginnings to become Kim Jong Il’s Godson, and the top official of North Korea’s ill-fated “Sinuiju Special Administrative Region” (SAR).
A naturalized Dutch citizen born and raised in the PRC, Yang Bin made his fortune in Europe and China. Invited to visit the impoverished “Hermit Kingdom” of North Korea, he accepts. He is full of affection and compassion for the North Koreans, and invests his heart and his capital—donating millions of dollars —to bring Dutch-style modern agricultural know-how to this isolated country.
His selfless conduct earns the respect of the people and their Supreme Leader, Marshal Kim Jong Il. At that unique historical moment when North Korea, inspired by the success of China’s Special Economic Zones, wished to establish its own, Yang Bin won the honor of serving as the Chief Executive of the brand new Sinuiju SAR.
Yang Bin is a living legend: From orphan to billionaire, from poor overseas student to Chief Executive of the Sinuiju SAR, North Korea’s daring experiment with international capitalism.
If the marketing blurb above jogs your memory, you will vaguely recall several years back (2002) North Korea shocked everyone by announcing the establishment of a Special Administrative Region in Sinuiju, right across from Dandong in Liaoning, PRC.
The experts were flabbergasted: What could Kim Jong Il possibly be thinking—a free-trade zone with a Basic Law as sophisticated as that of Hong Kong or Macao? To be independently administered by. . .a Chinese billionaire. . .with a Dutch passport?
Many a historian would love to have had the privileged access Guan Shan did to research Kim Jong Il’s Godson. As Yang Bin’s designated biographer, he schmoozes with the billionaire’s relatives, conducts uncensored interviews with top government officials in Dandong and North Korea, and takes part in the negotiations with the official North Korean Delegation as the Siniuju Basic Law is hammered out. And there is Guan Shan again, frantically taking notes when Yang Bin is hauled up before a Shenyang court, accused of everything from bribing officials to forgery of financial documents and contract fraud—and sentenced to a stunning 18 years of prison.
But just why did the Chinese government have it in for Yang Bin? This is a question mark that looms throughout the book. In his Foreword, Chen Feng-Jun, Professor at Peking University’s College of International Relations, takes the author to task for this:
I must point that regrettably, due to the limitations of the author himself, when it comes to certain critical issues—how top leaders in China made decisions on Yang Bin’s case, the real motivation and background for putting Yang Bin in jail, the actual viewpoint of China towards the Sinuiju SAR, and the impact of Yang Bin’s case on the relations between China and North Korea—this book does not provide the answers. At most, it offers some guesses.
Largely thanks to lively discussions of the bigger issues in the Foreword and Postscript—written by Guan Shan’s straight-talking friends in academia, not himself—it becomes obvious that the Chinese government was less than pleased about the prospect of a Korean “Hong Kong” just across the border. Run by an international wheeler-dealer like Yang Bin, whose firm had listed very successfully in Hong Kong, the Sinuiju SAR must have looked like an unwelcome economic competitor for China’s special economic zones and fast-growing eastern seacoast. And, shades of Macao, Yang Bin was known to have begun attracting casino business for his new SAR.
The earlier Chinese version of the book published in Hong Kong, The Unfortunate Prometheus: The Yang Bin that I Know (金正日的义子：杨斌传奇), was unwelcome in the mainland, and this better researched and bolder version won’t be coming to your local bookstore in Beijing soon either.
That’s because China’s official position on the “Yang Bin Affair” is both touchy and problematic. Writes Chen Feng-Jun:
According to the official explanation of the Chinese government, the outcome of Yang Bin’s case was completely in compliance with Chinese law. It had nothing to do with North Korea’s plan to establish the Sinuiju SAR.
But after reading Guan Shan’s book, we will come to a totally different conclusion: Yang Bin was intrinsically connected to relations between China and North Korea. The simplest fact is the following: On September 12, 2002, the Standing Committee of the Supreme People’s Assembly of North Korea established the Sinuiju SAR; on September 24, it designated Yang Bin as the Sinuiju SAR Chief Executive; and just ten days later, on October 4, Yang Bin was taken away for interrogation by the Shenyang Police.
According to Guan Shan: “Just five hours after Yang Bin was ‘summoned for questioning’, Lee Kan, the Deputy Director of the United States office under North Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, informed James Andrew Kelly, the U.S. Special Envoy, that North Korea was developing nuclear weapons. This triggered the so-called North Korean ‘nuclear crisis’.”
Guan Shan notes that “North Korea’s announcement of its plan to arm itself with nuclear weapons effectively meant it no longer trusted China to come to its aid if in need—or at least, such was the viewpoint of some scholars and observers.”
Since then, China has been seen as “unreliable” by its North Korean friends, despite a mutual defense treaty. China’s “nuclear umbrella” is no longer seen as extending to its neighbor. This perception has vastly reduced China’s influence over Kim Jong Il, something that has become more and more obvious as North Korea has proceeded with nuclear tests in 2006 and in May 2009, as well as missile launches, all condemned by the PRC to no avail.
At least one North Korean expert in China, Zhang Ying, sees a Machiavelian twist to North Korea’s reaction to Yang Bin’s arrest and imprisonment. Guan Shan cites him but doesn’t endorse his views. “The Yang Bin Affair was the catalyst that led North Korea to resume testing nuclear weapons. On the one hand, this move was North Korea’s response to China’s illegal detention of its senior official, but it was also an opportunity to drag the only superpower, the United States, into the game with its ‘nuclear bluff’. Marathon six-party talks (China, the US, the two Koreas, Russia and Japan) were then initiated in Beijing.”
Unfortunately, several aspects of Guan Shan’s book and his archaic sense of what a biographer should research and reveal badly mar what is otherwise a fascinating look at machinations inside the Hermit Kingdom, as well as what made Yang Bin tick.
Guan Shan’s slavish praise of the Chinese Communist Party and Kim Jong Il’s dictatorship badly dents any claims the book may have to objectivity. His oft-repeated mantra, that the Party will “Seek Truth from the Facts” and one day exonerate Yang Bin, seems especially ingratiating.
Frankly, Guan Shan’s reaction to staged celebrations in Pyongyang—reminiscent of China’s own mindless Cultural Revolution—seems downright odd. Yang Bin and his team are personally invited by the Supreme Leader to attend a celebration for the 70th anniversary of the People’s Army. Guan witnesses tens of thousands of North Korean citizens performing in perfect sync on Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang. They thunder “Long Live Marshal Kim!” and rush forward with flowers in their hands.
“We were cheering too,” recalls Guan. “Comrade Kim Jong Il stood on the platform, just a little more than 10 meters from us, and I took a photo of this exciting moment!…I was truly deeply impressed. These were heartfelt cheers from the Korean people…”
Less striking but still inappropriate is the way that a handful of Korean proper names, both place names and names of officials who took part in the Sinuiju negotiations, are romanized according to the Chinese pronunciation of their names, as if Korea were still a vassal state of the Middle Kingdom.
The book is chock-full of annoyingly meaningless detail. There are countless airport arrivals and departures in China and North Korea, yet each time we are told which young lady was holding a welcoming bouquet, and just how many limousines were in waiting. Do we really need to know what color they are, which brand name they carry, and whose extended limo headed the entourage?
In contrast to this fascination for trivia, the bigger questions one would expect a professional journalist to explore hardly rate a mention. At no point does Guan Shan interview Beijing officials, or independent political analysts, to get the inside story on how the government viewed Yang Bin’s accession to the post of Sinuiju SAR Chief. He delves only superficially into charges that Yang Bin gained permanent residence in Holland by betraying China’s military secrets. Nor does Guan Shan chat with anyone in the business world who might offer insight into Yang Bin the business strategist, or anyone outside Yang Bin’s circle who would venture an opinion on his group’s reputation in China as a whole.
Many of these shortcomings could have been eliminated if the book had been edited for an international readership. But in the end, this is a translation into English that remains a very Chinese book about a very Chinese phenomenon.