Deciphering PLA Media Commentaries on North Korea
All Show or Real Talk?
Published in: Korea Economic Institute of America website (2015)
Posted on RAND.org on May 14, 2021
As one of the most opaque actors at the center of China's policy toward North Korea, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) reveals few official public details on its views of North Korea and their nearly 60-year-old alliance. Yet as the Chinese government allows greater debate on North Korea policy in the mainstream Chinese media, some of the most prominent voices are those of PLA commentators. Compromised mostly of PLA academics who serve ultimately as propaganda artists, these "talking heads" or "hawks" serve to shape domestic public opinion and offer Beijing plausible deniability for signaling intentions and resolve to foreign governments during periods of tensions related to the Korean Peninsula. These commentators provide a window into PLA thinking on North Korea, but analysis is complicated by mixed messages and potentially misinterpreted signals. While isolated articles often lack authoritativeness without being placed in the proper context of the larger strategic environment and PLA actions, long-term trends in PLA commentators' writings, such as the emergence of Lt. General Wang Hongguang's critical narrative, can reflect shifts in official Chinese thinking about North Korea and may better capture changing dynamics behind the scenes. Since these PLA commentators have little impact on China's overall policy toward North Korea, U.S. and South Korean analysts should be wary of overemphasizing these writings and push to engage more authoritative PLA officials for future discussions of North Korea-related issues.