Jeffrey LewisWen Jiabao on the Cheonan Incident

We have been following the Cheonan incident on the blog — from Geoff Forden’s initial post indicating Torpedo damage (ROK Ship: Typical Torpedo Damage), to Josh Pollack’s posts on the report that concluded, yes, indeed North Korea had torpedoed the Cheonan (The Cheonan Report, The Cheonan Report, Continued) and South Korea’s response (Lee Myung-bak’s Line Drawn in the Water.)

Today’s commentary comes from Gregory Kulacki, who argues that the press is not accurately reporting the comments of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, who is reported to have said that China would not defend any country guilty of the attack.

The U.S. press (and possibly the US government) is potentially misinterpreting what Wen Jiabao said in Korea. Fortunately, both Korea and Japan use the Chinese characters, so there will be no misunderstanding there, but Wen chose a characteristically traditional and subtle word that carries a different connotation than “defend” and most certainly did it intentionally. And he did not say “country” but “behavior.” These are small but important differences.

The AP story states the following

The premier of China, North Korea’s main ally, offered condolences Saturday to South Korea for the sinking of a warship blamed on Pyongyang after promising that Beijing — under pressure to punish the North —would not defend any country guilty of the attack.

The meaning of the English word “defend” here is not entirely wrong, but a better, more accurate translation of what Wen meant was that “China opposes and will not make excuses for any behavior that damages peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.”

Taken as a whole that reads quite differently, at least to me, that what AP and others are reporting.

Late Update | 11:20 am I was a little quick on the post. Gregory emailed me to add “Another possible definition of the term is ‘condemn’ or ‘seriously criticize’ and it is a word used in political contexts to expressed strong criticism of the inappropriate, misguided, mistaken or malicious behavior or policies of individuals, groups and nations.”


  1. Jun Okumura (History)


    The Japanese-language media used 庇護 and かばう. The following are the online dictionary entries for the two words:

    1. 庇護
    〈保護〉 protection; 〈後援〉 patronage
    庇護する 〈保護する〉 protect; take sb under one’s protection [one’s wings]; 〈かくまう〉 shelter; shield; 〈ひいきにする〉 patronize
    …の庇護のもとに under the protection [wing, 《fml》 patronage] of…
    神の庇護により by the grace of God There does not appear to be
    2. かばう
    〈守る〉 protect [shield] sb 《from harm》; take sb under one’s wing; 〈とりなす〉 plead for sb; stick up for sb; take sb’s part; cover up for sb (過失などを隠蔽して).

    They look closer to the active mode “defend” than passive mode “make no excuses,” but maybe that’s just me. That said:
    1) The three language groups do not always give the same meaning to the same conjunction of Chinese characters.
    2) No records of the conversation are available.

    In other words, we are splitting the hair of a group of translations of a Chinese-language comment in a conversation whose provenance is unclear.

  2. Jun Okumura (History)

    Just a second. If Mr. Kulacki means that the report can be interpreted to mean that China would not physically defend North Korea from military retaliation, then he does have a point there. (Not that I think many people read it that way, given the ROK-PRC context of the comment.)

  3. spearshaker

    I’m Japanese and we do use many Chinese characters in their original forms but there are a lot of simplified or indigenous versions in daily use, too. Even when the characters are the same their meanings and connotations in the two languages can be wildly different.

    This is a rather exceptional case but a Japanese word meaning a letter (手紙:hand+paper)means toilet paper in Chinese. I guess you’d rather be offended to be told to use a letter to clean yourself up in the rest room…. So “there will be no misunderstanding” sounds a bit of an overstatement to me.

    Regarding the main point of your post, my quick scan of Japanese press reports tell me that they seem to interpret Wen’s comment as targeting DPRK, but particularly questioning its behavior in this incident, rather than the entire country/the Dear Leader.

    Thanks for your informative posts anyway.

  4. Ace (History)

    Xinhua, quoting MOFA, uses: 中国一贯主张并致力于维护朝鲜半岛和平稳定,反对和谴责任何破坏半岛和平稳定的行为。 But this is lame beyond words. It’s like the school teacher, who witnesses a bully punching a kid, but forces both students to detention. If China truly “condemns” any “behavior” that causes instability on the Korean peninsula, it can start with the main culprit. But it won’t, because if it’s one thing communists are good at, it’s covering up for crimes committed by their despotic leaders.

  5. G.Balachandran (History)

    I am puzzled by one fact. There was a meeting between the two leaders of China and South Korea. Both the governments have, presumably, some sort of Foreign Ministry Press and information bureaus. Also presumably both the governments, in view of the importance of the subject, have not only issues some press release giving their various statements in their own language, Chinese and Korean, and also, again presumably, given the interest of the rest of the world on the subject matter, also issued their own english version of the statement. Are there such statements? If not we seem to be reduced to the interpretations given by different persons- english, american english ( which we know differs not only in spellings, but also in meanings as some of the recent comments have indicated), Japanese, Korean Chinese and god knows what other languages). In short, what, if there are such official releases, are the english versions of the statement released by the two governments? As you may have realised by now, I have no knowledge of chinese, Korean, japanese and no knowledge of those who are giving their english versions.

  6. China Hand (History)

    It’s OK to read the linguistic tea leaves, but they should be in Wen Jiabao’s cup. All the coverage I’ve seen of this statement indicates it was given on background by a source in the ROK President’s office. As far as I can tell there has been no official or semi-official reference in the Chinese media to this statement. The PRC has consistently avoided taking a stand on the Cheonan incident. President Lee, on the other hand, appears eager to claim more Chinese support than he’s actually getting, the wishful ROK reporting on China’s statements after this weekend’s summit being a case in point. I would chalk this one up to over-eager spinmeistering out of the ROK.

  7. Martin Hellman (History)

    I came across a post

    that claims to be from an S. C. Shin, described as “a civil investigator recommended by Korean National Assembly for the sinking of Cheonan.” This post claims that the evidence points not to a torpedo attack, but an accidental grounding of the Cheonan, including the type of damage to the hull and propellers, a distress calls that said “grounded,” and more. Of course, the real question is whether this post is factual, a hoax, or a DPRK plant. Does anyone have any thoughts on this?

  8. sunbin (History)

    the NHK interview


    china is a country who upholds the righteousness and responsibility. regarding this event, we do not have any (self-)interest of our own. our focus is to maintain the peace and stability of the korean peninsular. we treat very seriously the joint investigation by other countries and the reaction of the various parties, and will decide our action based on the original truth of the matter, i.e. the right of wrong of what actually happened.


  9. sunbin (History)

    in chinese media, the words are

    “we are not going to partial to or shelter/protect any party.
    the messages are
    1) impartial
    2) will not try to protect (the culprit)

    the japanese wording of
    ‘庇護’ is very close — meaning protect under one’s wing.